This article is the first in a series of conversations between a father and son, Matthew and John Stephenson, who are starting a winemaking enterprise on a farm in Failand together. The first vines were planted in May 2017, and building work commenced on converting an agricultural barn into a winery and cider-mill in January 2018.
We decided to publish conversations, rather than conventional articles, when our first attempt to write a promotional piece ground to a halt over a disagreement about how to present the project to a general readership. Any attempt we made to resolve the disagreement proved fruitless, so we chose to print our contradictions, rather than a cohesive ‘brand’ image. It is our hope that this approach will give a truer reflection of the challenges, as well as excitement, of trying to establish a family vineyard, winery and business more generally.
The first conversation arises from our attempts to present our project to the world. We will make low-intervention, ‘natural’ wines in collaboration with two other drink producing businesses. We felt that the niche market of natural wine would be a good starting point for introducing ourselves. The problem was, how to present natural wine in a clear and engaging manner…:
Matthew: I’ve always liked the analogy between natural wines and punk music. Punk was a big influence on me growing up, I was in my late teens when bands like The Sex Pistols and The Clash started releasing music and I instantly connected with their spirit of rebellion. I sense the same anti-establishment ethos in the natural wine movement.
John: Because natural wine defines itself in opposition to the ‘status quo’?
M: Yes, it is opposed to the stuffy, hierarchical world of wine. It is subversive and trying to shake up the bland, commercial mainstream.
J: That spirit of rebellion certainly speaks to me too, but I take slight issue with the punk analogy. For me, punk is also defined by a DIY ethic – this licence that it gave to anyone to make music regardless of skill or money. If you could borrow a beaten-up guitar you could record a punk track, even if you didn’t know how to tune the thing! It’s not the same with wine, you need access to expensive, specialist equipment, something we’re all too aware of.
M: It is true that the start-up costs are prohibitive in wine-making. But the ethos of making natural wine is similar to that of making punk music. They used to say that you needed to know three chords to start a band. You didn’t need the tools you do to write a symphony, in fact it was preferable not to have them. In the same vein, to make natural wine you don’t need buckets full of chemicals, enzymes and dried yeast, you don’t need reverse osmosis machines and sterile filters. You don’t need a degree in oenology and a Master of Wine certificate All you need is grapes, a way of crushing them and some vessel in which to ferment the must. That’s it. Three chords!
J: Three chords can go a long way, so long as you play them loudly enough. I think, for me, this is where the punk analogy really runs out of steam. Punk is about being loud, being brash and making a point. Isn’t it?
J: Well, for me, the really interesting thing about natural wine is that the wines themselves are trying to do the opposite. The best argument for low-intervention methods of winemaking, in my opinion, is that interventions and additions can take away from some ineffable quality that the raw ingredients, the grapes possess. The fruit, and the microorganisms living on them, could express something unique but only if they are treated carefully by the winemaker and sensitively by the wine-drinker. This signals a sensitivity that is not present in punk. You could even say that it’s the antithesis of punk. I don’t know what the musical equivalent would be! Maybe something like John Cage, who took everything away so you really had to strain to hear what was there.
M: That’s all sounding a bit pretentious to me.
J: Who said natural wine wasn’t pretentious!
M: Well, that swings it for me. Nobody’s ever accused punk of pretension. I’m sticking with that as the best analogy.